Sell Your Creativity, Not Your Skills

For 10 years, I've made my living as freelance cameraman and video editor. For five years, I operated a small camera rental business as well. It's been tough, but I've relished the freedom to make my own choices, to live and die by them, sometimes even go broke by them, on a few occasions.

Recently, I've realized that it seems I've been going about this freelance thing all wrong.

I'm not being hard on myself. For all of my career, I've been selling my services as best I can. I've had some really good years, financially and otherwise. And then some not-so-good. In the past two years, I've worked hard to create a savings to do some things that I've really enjoyed: attending School for Poetic Computation and, in the process, moving back to New York City.

So Where Have I Gone so Terribly, Catastrophically Wrong?

I've made plenty of mistakes as a freelancing creative. So many that I wrote an instructional book detailing how not to repeat them.

Recently, I've realized that, the whole time I've been freelancing, my value proposition(a concept I came to better understand after watching an online course by The Void Academy called "The Heart of Artist Sustainability" - highly recc'd) has been that I am competent, efficient, cost-conscious, and that I work my rear-end off. Sadly, that's only gotten me so far. I certainly haven't become rich marketing myself this way.

In fact, I've always thought of myself as a technician, rather than "a creative". Just like the term "content creator", I abhor the noun creative as a descriptor of occupation. I've always called myself a "freelance cameraman", a "camera operator and director of photography", or a "video producer". None of these terms really communicated that I made my living being creative but they were satisfactory, although I always felt a bad taste in my mouth when I said them.

"Video producer" seemed to most adequately describe my professional function, and also, coincidentally, seemed to be the title that implied creativity the most.

But "the creativity" has always seemed incidental to what I do. At least as far as being hired onto gigs goes. When I started out in film and video production, I believed in creativity. I believed that I had something to offer as a creative person and that someday I would be recognized for it, and showered with monetary gifts and accolades for my work.

However, as I gained years and experience, I noticed that clients never seemed to be hiring me for my creativity. They wanted someone who could shoot and produce a cleanly-lit video interview and usable b-roll. It was expected that I would get good, well-composed shots, but it was also assumed that there were a number of camerapersons who could get similar results.

This kind of stuff. Video as content, and not as art. It pays the bills, but so do a lot of things.

The discussion of creativity and creative things did come into play when I used to shoot independent film projects - mostly short films and documentaries. However, many times the deal was, "this is the budget we have, take it or leave it". In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I was paid to work on a film in a creative capacity and not a purely technical one.

Maybe my problem was that I always assumed that I just wasn't yet skilled enough to fully utilize my creativity. I didn't realize that you could sell your creativity. It seemed audacious to even think about saying that.

The underlying assumption seems to be that your work should be so good, there should be no question about your creativity. But what about the unseen aspects of creativity? Maybe my images weren't always mind-blowing, but what about my resourcefulness, my connections, my ideas dammit? Maybe I've been giving these things away for free all along. 

Money people — producers and corporate marketing types – are tough negotiators. They know the market and have a pretty good idea of what they want to pay you based on your work samples, but also how you communicate with them. 

The way you conceptualize and talk about what you do is uber important – It's "I do corporate marketing videos, mostly but sometimes passion projects" versus "I make films". I thought it was enough to be plainly honest, but I've learned that marketing has it's own dictates and you're allowed to brand yourself how you see fit. 

In fact, you should brand yourself as what you want to be and then create work that validates that. I've known that for a while, but now I believe that. I see how that belief functions in the real world of work and gigging.

But first, what even is creativity? Is it a magic goo that some of us have and some of us don't — much like the bodily humours of the medieval era?

What Creativity, Is What It Isn't

A lot of times, creativity is reduced down to a sort of "problem-solving in a novel way"-type thing. There are surely more expansive definitions.

Wikipedia defines creativity as: 

"...a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed."

Okay, "valuable", hmm. Interesting. Who defines the value of the thing created or to be created? Surely, your client does, but it's certainly possible to discuss the value of the creative thing to be made. Another word for this process would be negotiation.

How about Google's definition?*

the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

synonyms: imagination, innovation, innovativeness, originality, individuality; artistry, inspiration, vision; enterprise, initiative, resourcefulness

What I'm interested in, is what does it mean to sell your creativity? If we unpack that phrase, "selling your creativity", it appears to do so is to sell:

  • the use of your imagination - your ideas, your vision, the possibilities that you conceive for the project. 
  • your innovativeness - how you research, innovate, and iterate.
  • your originality - the way you do the things you do. Your style.
  • your individuality, artistry, inspiration - your artistic training, your life experiences, your knowledge and references
  • your enterprise and resourcefulness - your business connections, your access to favorable rates, unique facilities, smart and powerful people 
  • your initiative - your ability to self-start different aspects of the project and to see to it's various parts along the way. The ability to steadily bring the project to completion.

In this context, the term creativity seems to encompass a great deal. Film and video production people most often think of themselves as technicians when they are "below-the-line".

However, many clients don't want to just be told how creative you are, they want to be shown. Obviously your work is crucial to demonstrating your creative abilities.

The fact of the matter is that clients will buy your creativity if they believe it will produce a desired result, such as growing their business(it's almost always this, but also sometimes might be to gain public awareness, or to persuade and audience in service of political or non-profit causes). Having a solid handle on business language and concepts such as ROI, growth hacking, and social media strategy can only help.

Clients want measurable impact. Creativity is not so measurable, but you can measure the impact of your efforts. An example might be writing a case study for a project you've done. Online content metrics such as views and likes are always compelling.

Three Guys Walk Into A Bar — A Book

In writing my book, Don't Do What I Did, I connected with Jim Shields. Jim is the founder of Twist and Shout, a production company based in Dallas, TX and Leicester, UK. He's also a producer and writer with decades of experience. 

I will shamelessly admit that It was from reading Jim's book, Three Guys Walk Into A Bar, that I learned — most successful creatives sell their art and creativity, not their services. They stand out, rather than offering the same thing that everyone else offers.

To be honest, without reading Three Guys, it may have otherwise never occurred to me.

I really liked Jim's book, but I'm not here to sell it to you. I will explain one of it's core concepts though, as it may elucidate my(really Jim's) point.

The Three Guys

In the book, Jim posits that, as a freelancer, you can be one of three types:

"A Guy"

The client says, "I need a video editor/graphic designer/copywriter". The client needs a guy/gal/person to do a job. The job doesn't necessarily require any skills. If a monkey could do the job and was cheaper, the client would likely hire them.

But actually a well-tempered monkey that can do Photoshop is kind of a find, so what I'm really saying is that, as "a guy", you are supremely expendable. There are hundreds of thousands of web designers working in the world today(may be off by a zero but you get my drift), and most do the job the best they can and try to accumulate as many clients as possible. 

Seems ok, but this is actually the least desirable position to be in for a freelancer. You are at the mercy of the client, especially if you don't have many other clients and are just starting out.

There's no shame in being A Guy. We all start here and everyone has bills to pay. 

But it's desirable to escape this designation as soon as possible.

"That Guy"

This is a rung up the ladder. Once attaining "That Guy" status, you will have clients that see you as more than a sentient bag of meat.

This is the client saying, "Get me that guy. The one who does x". This is the middle ground. As "that guy", you've got experience and you're known for doing one thing really well. This gives you much-needed leverage as a freelancer. You're still expendable but much less so.

"The Guy"

"The Guy", is the freelancer who sells their creativity.

Paraphrasing from Jim's book:

Congrats – you're the go-to-man/woman/person!  You get called before the project begins. They involve you in development(ooh, ahh). You are asked what your schedule is in advance of the project, instead of at the last possible minute, like "A Guy" perpetually has to deal with.

Here you are, "the [BLANK] guy": the 'VR-documentary-guy', the 'NYC-contemporary-art-criticism-woman', the 'person-who-makes-exquisite-3D-printed-sculptures'.

At this point, you can pretty much name your price, and work when you want. It's where all freelancers aspire to be, I'd reckon.

How to Sell Your Creativity

So, how to get from "A Guy" to "The Guy"? Admittedly, I'm still working on this. I had a really nice position back in Dallas being a land developer's "The Guy". They treated me well, paid my rate, were flexible with deadlines, and accepted my ideas.

And then I moved back to New York City. Once again, I am just, "A Guy". I don't intend to be in this position for long. 

Here's my strategy for going from "A Guy" to "The Guy":

  1. Write about what you do. If a large component of creativity is problem-solving, show the internet-faring populace what you're interested in and how you confronted and designed for challenges you faced in making something. By putting your writing online via a blog and social media, you are being your own best advocate. In Jim's book, he states that blogging can attract clients and answer their questions before they even speak to you. Which gives you credibility that you can leverage in negotiating contract terms.
  2. Do great work. Find situations that allow you to produce unique and inspired work. Yes, sometimes we have to take work that simply pays the bills, but I'd consider avoiding any long-term situation that eats up all of your time and energy just for financial security. Find work arrangements that grant you the space to create. Every creative should have time to devote to a side project or two.
  3. Network and find collaborators. Be a decent human, let people know what you do, and you will find like-minds.

Creativity for Sale – Final Thoughts

As creative humans, the reality is that yes, we are selling our creativity to be able to afford the necessities of modern life. It's not an ideal situation, to be sure. 

As a creative, you'll have to decide what you will and won't put up with ethically, morally, and, well, creatively. As an aside, design ethics is a topic that I really look forward to writing about.

For freelancers, the good news is that, while you can put a price on event videography, content writing, and so on, the price of creativity is highly subjective. If "art is whatever you can get away with", creativity is worth whatever you can get people to pay for it.

Obviously, the cornerstone of being able to sell your creativity is a good reputation. Quite possibly, it all rests on word of mouth and the reputaiton that you create — one gig at a time, one blog post at a time, even one conversation at a time.

I just moved back to New York. Currently, I am A Guy that makes video. My goal is to be, "The Guy Who Writes Critically About VR and New Media and Makes Art As Well". A bit long-winded maybe, but that's where I'm aiming. I'll narrow it down along the way.

For the first time in a few years, I am actually, truly enjoying the work I'm doing. It's all in the arts and tech scene, and a lot of it is assisting artists with different aspects of their work. It doesn't pay well(yet) but it's exciting and provides enough to live on. I've decided that the only way to work is with, and for, other creative people.

So maybe the question is, "how do you sell your creativity to creative people?"

I'll end with a quote I've alway liked:

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”

- Rumi

*As an aside, apparently they've had their own English dictionary since 2009, I had not noticed until now — I'd always assumed they sourced from Webster's or Merriam, but why would they, they're Google)